Somewhere in the middle of this section I passed my word limit. Oh well, I'm sure some of you could easily cut out parts of what I've written. I think I'm finally ready for my conclusion after this section. Then the pruning... or I suppose rewriting... will begin.
The post-modern critique of meaning has forced at least some modifications to modernist evangelical hermeneutics. We would argue that these modifications actually cohere better with the hermeneutic of John Wesley and the nineteenth century holiness movement than they do with late twentieth century evangelical hermeneutics. For example, we have already seen the (professed) contemporary evangelical aversion to reading Scripture in any way other than with its original meaning. Richard Longenecker exemplifies this tendency in his study of the way the New Testament itself interprets the Old Testament.[i] His work and the work of evangelical scholarship in general have attempted to minimize the non-contextual orientation of New Testament exegesis.[ii]
Nevertheless, Longenecker is forced in the end to acknowledge that the biblical authors themselves come up short when evaluated by the canons of evangelical hermeneutics.[iii] Rather than let New Testament practice legitimize the pneumatic exegesis that typified groups like nineteenth century revivalists and twentieth century charismatics, he instead gives precedence to the evangelical perspective over the practice of the Bible itself. He relegates New Testament methods of exegesis to an aspect of ancient culture that does not transcend to the present! The guiding principles of evangelical hermeneutics are thus recognized to be based on principles brought to the Bible rather than derived from Scripture itself.
Ironically, Vanhoozer himself is a good illustration of the incoherency of evangelical hermeneutics as it attempts to respond to the post-modern critique of meaning. At the same time that he champions the literal meaning of Scripture, we find him deviating to a different hermeneutic, seemingly unaware, as he searches for a way from the particular meanings of individual passages to an overarching, coherent significance for Scripture as a whole.[iv] Scripture as a whole, he suggests, is a speech-act from God, which means that God has determined the meaning of Scripture as a whole. Certainly we do not fault him for this theological understanding of Scripture—it coheres well with John Wesley’s sense of the analogy of faith.
What it does not cohere with are his own claims with regard to the proper meaning of the Bible as its “literal” meaning. However the audiences of the biblical texts understood the books of the Bible, they did it from within their particular socio-cultural matrices and their accompanying symbolic universes. These diverse meanings constitute the plain (what he means by “literal”) meaning of the books of the Bible. Whatever it might mean to say that Scripture is an overarching, divine speech-act, it is de facto quite distinct from the several, “literal” meanings of the words.
On the other hand, others have taken the post-modern critique on board to the extent that they no longer seem to distinguish between the original meaning of the biblical texts and their own theological appropriation of it. Joel Green, for example, eschews the modernist hermeneutic that bids us think of the books of the Bible as “someone else’s mail.”[v] Unless we are willing to hear ourselves as the “you” of James, he writes, “we are not in a position to hear well the Letter of James as Christian Scripture."[vi] Again, these comments cohere well with the hermeneutics of both Wesley and the Christians of the ages, as well as with the nineteenth century holiness revivalists.
The issue with theological hermeneutics, as we might term Green’s approach, is that it seems to put its head in the sand and simply ignore the elephant in the room, namely, the fact that the meanings we see in the biblical text are almost certainly different from those of the original audiences. On the one hand, the twentieth century philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer rightly pointed out that we inevitably bring along the perspectives of our past, especially the traditions to which we belong, as we try to interpret texts such as the Bible.[vii] The result is that our understandings of the biblical books always blur our context with the original contexts, which inevitably remain somewhat inaccessible to us. Accordingly, Green’s hermeneutic largely gives up the chase. Indeed, it almost impugns the chase as inimical to understanding the Bible as Christian Scripture.
Again, we might easily conceptualize Wesley’s analogy of faith as the appropriate theological context within which to read the books of Scripture, the appropriate tradition within which to fuse our “horizon” with the “horizon” of the biblical texts. The diverse books of the Bible thus take on the coherent structure of faith that we bring to it and become unified Scripture. At the same time, we must recognize that although we may not be able to determine with full certainty what the original meaning of the books of the Bible was, we can say with a high degree of certainty that it must have differed in significant ways from the holistic theological perspective we bring to it by way of the analogy of faith.
We can say such things because of the principle of anachronism. Although we do not know the original meaning of the Bible definitively, we know enough about ancient symbolic universes to see that, for example, Christian understandings of the Old Testament must often differ from the understandings its original audiences would have had in the ancient near east. Similarly, unless we wish to suggest that the Christian thinkers of the second to fifth century had simply lost touch with the original meaning of the New Testament, we must conclude that their conclusions on the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ forged new ground with the biblical texts that differed to at least some degree from their original meanings. Otherwise they would not have had so much to debate.
In short, we see that the coherence of the Bible is as much a function of us as Christian readers as it is a function of the original meaning of these texts. The books themselves, as far as their original authors are concerned, largely were not written with a view to each other. The authors of the “Jewish Bible” by and large did not interact with each other to explain how, for example, comments the prophetic tradition makes about sacrifices (e.g., Jeremiah 7:22; Psalm 40:6-7) might fit with the assumptions of the Levitical tradition. It is true that New Testament authors do provide a certain perspective from which to find unity in the “Old Testament.” But the very label, Old Testament, implies a perspective that is not intrinsic to the Jewish Bible itself in its several original meanings.
Nor do the New Testament books tell us how to integrate their teachings with one another. James does not have a footnote at James 2:24—“a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”—that explains how this statement coheres with Romans 3:28—“a person is justified by faith and not by works of law.” Whether we like it or not, we are forced to take these two diverse biblical comments and construct from them a unified Scripture. We do this work of integration by assuming a unified stance in relation to the biblical text as a whole. We will presumably draw the elements of this unified stance from the materials of the Bible itself, but the stance must de facto be one assumed from the outside of the Bible looking in. We have no other choice; we can do no other.
[i] Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period.
[ii] Ben Witherington on Nazareth.
[iv] Meaning, First Theology
[v] Seized by Truth, 51.
[vi] ***, 55.
[vii] Truth and Method